Thursday, May 1, 2008

Gut Bomb

There are people who can pour a beer straight down their gullet. They’re popular at Frat parties. My friend Shmi can do that with a Grande, nonfat, 190 degree, two-Splenda latte. Oddly, she’s not that popular at Frat parties. Maybe it’s because she can’t roll a quarter down her nose and bounce it into a cup with any predictability or maybe because Frat parties simply don’t serve up the kind of persnickety coffee order that would allow her to shine. Either way, I always get a kick out of watching her do it on Sunday afternoons while my coffee disappears in slow sips between the play-by-play analyses of both of our lives. What that actually sounds like at the next table is that I describe the blind, hapless stumble I took through my week and she manages to rephrase it as graceful, practiced choreography performed for an approving audience. That takes abundant creativity and most of the afternoon.

By the time we run out of coffee and conversation, our bellies are equally empty. But since I’m the kind of carnivore often caught standing over the sink eating red meat out of the palm of my hand and she’s the kind of vegan whose food is always certifiably soulless, we have a hard time finding a common nosh. After the pretense of internal struggle, I sometimes buckle to her wheaty whims only to find myself with a mouthful of Mighty-O Donut - Local and Vegan - thinking, “Hmmm, these really aren’t very good.” It’s a real shame considering the cost.

From what I can see, my little Indian friend has a iron-clad gut fitted to her fire-proof esophagus but my dainty little system can be leveled by a sugary confection like a blow dart from five paces. The roiling belly usually starts at around midnight and gets incorporated into a bad dream featuring rabid monkeys that spend most of the early hours jumping on my middle while munching donuts and grinding crumbs into my quilt. I awaken as rested as anyone who teases wild monkeys might, with low energy and a sterile gut. Given all the ways to commit crimes against gut flora, you may all be waking to your own sea of stagnation or perhaps just smelling like a monkey’s plaything which, by the way, is a different diagnosis but equally unfortunate.
Most people don’t pause to consider that the antibiotics taken on purpose and the no-so purposeful second-hand dose they get in animal products thanks to the liberal lacing in animal feed to ensure meat and diary makes it to market, continue to kill bacteria including your all-important belly buddies even after you’ve macerated them. And if you think keeping a pet gold fish alive is a challenge, try keeping a gut terrarium flourishing with a food allergy like mine. That midnight rumble in my belly is the sound of an entire population being massacred. The least I could do is erect a memorial monument in my duodenum.

It’s this bacterial infantry that not only forms normal, moist stools (sometimes the word ‘moist’ is just icky) but it also enables the destruction of pathogenic material, manufactures essential vitamins, protects the intestinal walls, and develops and regenerates tissue. Without this teeming environment, you can’t absorb the nutrients in your food and you begin to suffer from the maladies of malnutrition. But no matter how many billions of one-celled soldiers you have in your army, they’re no match for a Mighty-O if you can’t gut it out against an allergen.
In fact, there’s a lot of things that can cause that kind of genocide including protein deficiency, excess dietary fiber, intestinal acidity, diarrhea, heavy metals , silverware, mercury from amalgam fillings, food coloring, environmental pollutants, colonics and, as mentioned before, antibiotics and allergic reactions. Some of the items on the list are easy enough to explain. Intestinal acidity occurs when pancreatic ducts get blocked usually by too much indigestible fiber in the duodenum; diarrhea flushes flora; heavy metals and amalgam fillings are toxic; silverware and food coloring has antibiotic properties; and colonics are silly for obvious reasons. It’s the protein and fiber that require a little explanation courtesy of our good friend Konstantin Monastryrsky, in Fiber Menace:

Protein deficiency – intestinal flora derives its energy and plastic nutrients not from food, but from mucin, which is secreted by healthy mucous membranes. Mucin is a glycoprotein – a molecule that bonds glucose with amino acids. Gastric and intestinal mucus is formed by combining mucin and water. Mucus protects the lining of the stomach and intestines from mechanical damage, enzymes, gastric acid, astringent bile, and food born pathogens. The deficiency of the essential amino acid threonine, for example, curbs the body’s ability to produce mucin, and correspondingly, bacteria’s ability to function and procreate.

Excess dietary fiber – The byproducts of fiber’s bacterial fermentation (short chain fatty acids, ethanol, and lactic acid) destroy bacteria for the same reason ethanol, and lactic acid) destroy bacteria for the same reason acids and alcohols are routinely used to sterilize surgical instruments – they burst bacterial membranes on contact. And that’s how fiber addiction develops; as the fermentation destroys bacteria, you need more and more fiber to form stools. If you suddenly drop all fiber, and no longer have many bacteria left, constipation sets in as soon as the large intestine clears itself of the remaining bulk.

Under other circumstances, the absence of intestinal gasses might be cause for a sense of superiority around your uncouth and noisy friends but, in this case, it’s just a symptom of a sterile gut along with the more obvious constipation. What isn’t so obvious is that frequent respiratory infections, asthma, bronchitis, chronic rhinitis, post nasal drip, nasal voice, sinus congestion and allergies might be a tip off too. Deficiencies in Vitamin K, which is a byproduct of bacterial metabolism, can show up as hard to stop ordinary bleeding and bruising while deficiencies in Vitamin B12 produced by intestinal flora causes numbness and tingling of hands and feet, shortness of breath, chronic fatigue a sore mouth and tongue and mental confusion.

Finding a new community to populate your suddenly sterile stomach is a little more complex than my usual advice to lick doorknobs for a routine immune boost. Posting a listing for free room and board to wayward organisms on Craig’s list won’t get the job done either. But you’ve already done your gut an injustice if you don’t habitually smooch livestock on the nose, fling dung for distance, and caress every surface at the Greyhound bus station all without washing your hands. It’s called the hygiene theory and we’re living in a world where our sterile guts match or sterile environments. In fact, aside from our unfortunate lack of incidental contact with bacterial sources, the fact that formula fed children miss their first infestation from breast milk and adults with appendectomies lack a place to store their starter culture to boost their count when their tank is low, doesn’t make things any better.